Can the ‘Made in Germany’ approach lead to self-sufficiency?

Germany is striving to help African farmers through innovative approaches. But it has its critics. [Department of Foreign Affairs/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Innovations instead of assistance for farming.

SPECIAL REPORT / The German government wants to spruce up the African agricultural sector with “Green Innovation Centres”, as well as by using the help of German agribusiness. Critics warn against making the same mistakes that were made 40 years ago.

It is one of the great paradoxes of sub-Saharan Africa. Even though its countries have enormous agricultural potential, its inhabitants have to rely on food imports, to a considerable extent. More than 200 million people go hungry. Germany’s development minister Gerd Müller wants to change this. “Africa can become self-sufficient. And Germany wants to help Africa to help itself,” said the CSU politician in Berlin on 9 September, in front of African government representatives.

Müller wants to modernise the African agricultural sector, using German know-how. Thirteen development ministry “Green innovation centres” will open their doors in the coming days. With the help of German companies and research institutions, smallholders will be taught efficient cultivation techniques, how to operate modern machinery and how to use targeted pesticides.

Müller developed the concept of agri-training during his time as a parliamentary secretary in Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. At the time, he was responsible for export promotion. His current ministry will provide the centres with over €80 million over the next two years.

Far from the reality

The first projects are already underway in Ethiopia. Farm managers, machine operators, vocational teachers and farmers with large scale experience are on call. This is in addition to the provision of high-quality seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and modern-machinery training. Support has been offered by agricultural companies such as Bayer CropScience and Claas. Small farmers have so far not taken part in the training.

The hunger problem will not be resolved by modelling the African agricultural sector after the European system. Better to focus on the realities of life facing small farmers, agricultural expert Marita Wiggerthale, of Oxfam, told

German parliament member Uwe Kekeritz (Greens) also agrees that the Ethiopian Green Innovation Centres are taking the wrong approach. “We are promoting a large-scale, industrial type of agriculture. Such projects simply do not serve the needs of the local people,” he said in an interview with

Kekeritz harks back to the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s. At that time, the international community doubled food production, with disastrous consequences for the environment and health of developing countries. Critics maintain to this day, that the Revolution exhausted resources from the available land, and that small farmers bore the brunt of the damage caused.

Export promotion for German agribusiness?

“With the opening of the Green Innovation Centres, Gerd Müller is not so much helping poor local people, but rather is opening up new markets for German companies in Africa, at the expense of the local people’s food security,” said Kekeritz.

The Green politician calls instead for a focus on sustainable farming practices that would help small farmers drag themselves out of poverty. “We should be promoting environmentally and socially sustainable agriculture in these countries. But that’s not happening,” insisted Kekeritz.

Teach a man to fish…

Agricultural researcher Detlef Virchow does not completely share Kerkeritz’ concerns. “It’s advantageous to give smallholders machinery and train them to use it themselves. There are customisable solutions, less intensive machinery and equipment suitable for smaller plots of land,” Virchow told

Virchow has taken over the Centre for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn and its accompanying research for the Green Innovation Centres.

In his opinion, German companies are important partners, especially in terms of providing machinery, as many German firms have a good reputation in Africa for high-quality maintenance of their products, on-site.

The researchers at the ZEF identify innovations that the centres can use in their work. These include improved management techniques and new technologies, like solar drying of fruit and veg, as well as research into the movement and eating behaviours of livestock. Training farmers how to use modern machinery also belongs to this category of innovative techniques.

Development cooperation for all farmers

“Obviously, the Green Innovation Centres are not just targeted at farmers who have holdings of fewer than two hectares. If productivity gains are to be achieved on the continent, then they have to be accessible to all farmers, even those that are already connected to the supply chain,” said Virchow.

German Agro Action, a development and humanitarian organisation, engage with several Green Innovation Centres. Programme coordinator Matthis Mogge shares the concerns of Kekeritz and other NGOs. But he did warn against painting a black and white picture of the Green Innovation Centres, as not all aspects of the initiative should be demonised.

“Enough of the paternalism”

“We shouldn’t be sending out false signals, by saying that African farmers aren’t allowed tractors. This implies that it is because they can’t handle them. That is a fatal form of paternalism, which has no place in the 21st century,” said Mogge in an interview with African farmers and politicians are excited about the Green Centres. According to Mogge, the German development ministry has now realised that it necessary to develop customised solutions for farmers, implementing science and political action in situ.

A pertinent example is the Green Innovation Centre in Kenya, which Kekeritz visited a few weeks ago. There are already several sites under construction that will be used for training purposes, including ‘test-fields’ for the cultivation of the European potato. However, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) decided to switch to the established sweet potato. Additionally, the construction of a small milk processing plant is planned. In West Kenya, there is a particular demand for dairy products, for example yoghurt, so there is clearly a market available.

The Innovation Centre trains local farmers how to operate in the cold chain and how to meet with hygiene standards, as well as how to maintain their investment once the project has ended. “I whole-heartedly welcome these sustainable elements of production, because, if properly implemented, they will allow farmers to be independent,” said Kekeritz.

Innovations may also soon be extended to the Green Innovation Centre in India, for which German companies have pushed. Bayer CropScience are building a monitoring station there. By monitoring weather conditions, they intend to help the apple growers of Kashmir combat fungal diseases that thrive in certain conditions. The apple growers will receive up to date and timely information that will allow them to adapt their plant protection accordingly.

in March 2015, Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) gave the go-ahead for 13 Green Innovation Centres in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroun, Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Togo, Tunisia and Zambia. According to the BMZ, the aim of the centres is to increase the income of smallholders, to promote employment, processing particularly, and to improve regional food supplies through innovation of the agri-food industry.  The construction and stabilisation of local value chains is also an important part of the process.

The Innovation Centres are part of the BMZ's special initiative "EINEWELT ohne Hunger" (One world, no hunger). In this way, the ministry puts food security and the fight against hunger at the forefront of its mission. Annually, around one billion euros (in 2015, €1.4 billion) is directed toward this area, particularly towards the African nations. Priorities include the strengthening of agricultural systems' resilience, structural changes in rural areas, as well as safe and fair access to resources and land.

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